MONEY politics is a common thread in the current widespread disillusionment with government. Raising campaign contributions has become a constant preoccupation of elected officials and a breeding ground for scandal. Politicians bemoan the time and attention devoted to fund raising; they spend so much time keeping their jobs that they have little time to do their jobs. To outsiders the government appears to be in the hands of monied special interests and elected officials to be part of a system of organiz ed bribery.
Two presidential candidates this year have attacked traditional money politics as a key part of their campaigns. Jerry Brown has accused both parties of serving similar monied interests. He traces the demise of progressive policies to that dominance. His own $100 limit on donations kept his practice consistent with his preaching and showed one way to insulate an electoral campaign from the existing money politics.
Ross Perot agrees with Mr. Brown that the game is rigged. But while Brown tried to undercut money politics from below - more people giving less - Mr. Perot comes at the game from above: one person giving all. His money makes his candidacy unique in American history. He threatens simply to outprice the two-party monopoly. As he forthrightly put it, "I'm buying it [the election] for the American people."
Perot's candidacy is both the ultimate triumph of money in politics and perhaps the best chance of ending the reign of money politics. An individual's spending $200-300 million of his own money to be elected president goes against the thrust of every attempt in modern times to clean up campaigns. And yet, doesn't it mean that at last here's a candidate who would owe his office to no one but the voters?
Perot may well be too rich to be bought. But his attempt to offset public funding in presidential elections, to outbid soft-money donors, and to overwhelm the resources of our voter-based parties is a most audacious and ironic attempt at reform.
It says something about how far we've fallen that millions of Americans now see the best chance of changing their political system to lie with a nonpartisan, super-wealthy businessman willing to spend his way to the White House. The acquiescence by public-interest groups and campaign reformers in Perot's emergence attests to the failure of their attempts to limit money politics.
But this may be the last time the electoral system will allow itself to be vulnerable to a takeover by one man with enormous amounts of money. Both parties along with numerous public and private interest groups will support efforts in the future to prevent this type of challenge. That will, of course, be done in the name of reform.
NY hopes for real change depend on changing the process by which political decisions are made and policy is carried out. Perot, like Brown, must talk about the process, not the substance, of policy. He needs to remind his audience that comprehensive health care or deficit reduction or environmental healing will come to naught without reforming the system. To lead with his own substantive issue positions, as demanded by the media, is to distract from this principled position and to diminish the energy ani mating his campaign.
The attacks on Perot for his lack of positions on substantive issues can be turned around. His popular support is clearly not based on substantive positions. He needs a clear program for reforming a political system that most of its citizens no longer have faith in. And this disillusionment derives only partly from the failures in Washington to produce policy results. It also comes from the feeling that the system is rigged for those with money.
Perot does owe it to us all to make clear how he would fix this system of money politics. To keep his outsider credentials clean, he might well pledge to serve only one term. He needs to focus on restricting the established processes of money politics - through campaign reform, lobbying restrictions, and banning revolving-door appointments. Bringing spending and taxes into some balance can be considered a process reform that must precede any future government's beginning to address the problems and oppor tunities that will confront Americans of the next century.
In short, like Plato's citizen politician whose great wealth was supposed to make him incorruptible, Perot should save the Republic and then leave.